HIGH CAMP AND KUBRICK DEVOTION
Charles Busch’s campy noir classic “Die, Mommie, Die!” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Leon Vitali, the subject of the documentary “Filmworker,” opening at the Nuart tomorrow, have one thing in common: they’re both ALL IN. Vitali gave up a successful acting career to become Stanley Kubrick’s indispensable right arm. Busch, renowned for his cross-dressing camp/vamp plays and performances, knows that outrageous humor requires over-the-top characters and plots.
Celebration Theatre, the only professional LGBTQ theatre in L.A., brings this production to the Kirk Douglas as part of Center Theatre Group’s “Block Party” initiative, showcasing work by L.A.’s smaller theatres.
The noir twists and turns, wigs and costumes and slapstick physicality in “Die, Mommie, Die!” are vintage Busch. The storyline follows the failed career of singer Angela Arden (Drew Droege, dressed in drag) as she attempts a comeback, despite the loss of her voice; her daughter Edith (Julanne Chidi Hill) who’s in love with her father Sol (Pat Towne), a movie producer in deep debt to the Mob; their gender-tender son Lance (Tom deTrinis) who would be Angela if he could, and the gigolo Tony Parker (Andrew Carter) who seduces all of them (except Sol). And then there’s Bootsie (Gina Torrecilla), the Nixon-supporting, secret alcoholic housekeeper, who’s in love with Sol.
This is my first Charles Busch play, and there’s a lot to commend in this production, especially the physicality of Lance, whose body fluidity and herky-jerky flailing make for a tour-de-force performance. Tony Parker’s super tight pants reveal the object of so much affection, and he flaunts it with some blatantly in-your-face, leg-up poses.
Edith’s baby doll costumes both expose and enhance her zaftig figure, and her overwhelming, fawning adulation of Sol results in her desire to see Mommie dead. She actually persuades Lance, who’s as obsessed with Mommie as she is with Daddy, to help try to kill her.
But Mommie has a plan of her own: she’s going to kill Sol (who she hates) so she can run away to New York with Tony. The plot gets twistier and twistier. Constantly thwarted, Angela needs to get that arsenic into Sol; Lance thinks it’s cocaine and nearly snorts it. Hot milk she prepares to help Sol sleep is rejected because he hates hot milk. Ultimately the “insertion” of the “arsenic” occurs through a giant suppository that’s supposed to help break up Sol’s constipation. It’s kinda gross but stage-wise, insanely well done. More twists ensue.
Mommie’s own secret is revealed when the two children slip some LSD into her drink. During her psychedelic trip, we hear the truth: that Angela is really not Angela after all but Barbara, her sister, who killed Angela out of envy when their sister act broke up because Angela had the talent and left Barbara behind. The kids have recorded her confession; which engenders yet another twist.
There are some very funny moments: the acid trip is at first very well done, but it goes on too long. As does the play. I’ve read that it can be performed at a snappy 90 minutes, which I honestly expected it to be. Instead, it’s two-and-a-half hours with an intermission and honestly, the wrong kind of drag takes place at this pace.
While I do think a trim would benefit the production, nevertheless, kudos to the actors for their willingness to play it to the max. “Die, Mommie, Die!” runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City only through this Sunday, May 20th so if you want to catch it, do it fast! www.centertheatregroup.org
When Leon Vitali sat in a theatre watching Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” he said to his companion, “I want to work for this man.” He got more than he bargained for. “Filmworker” is the story of Vitali, the man behind the man, who devoted his life to the artistry, genius, and mercurially temperamental director’s cinematic vision.
Hired for what was to be a small role, Lord Bullington in Kubrick’s classic “Barry Lyndon,” the unfailingly focused work he did through take after exhausting take impressed Kubrick, who then expanded his character into an important supporting role in the film.
Then, he asked Vitali if he’d like to come work with him as an assistant. Although he had a successful acting career, Vitali was completely taken with Kubrick and gave everything up to work beside him. Vitali served as Kubrick’s creative partner and all-purpose second in command.
The man we see on screen telling us his story bears little resemblance to the baby-faced actor who appeared in TV and film in the 1970s. Thin to the point of emaciation, his face is roughly lined and sunken, and he looks like life has battered him. In fact, life with Kubrick did batter him, but without Vitali, Kubrick’s legacy would not be what it is today.
Vitali’s work ranged from acting coach to casting director to overseeing marketing, promotion and technical oversight of film transfers, to archiving Kubrick’s prints and it continues today.
Along with filmmaker Tony Zierra, Leon Vitali appear for Q&As at 7:20 pm on Friday and Saturday night at the Nuart Theatre, where “Filmworker” screens for one week only, starting tomorrow May 18. https://www.landmarktheatres.com/los-angeles/nuart-theatre
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.